A Notable Exhibit of Twentieth Century Fashion

Fascination with international high-styled fashion really knows no boundaries when it comes to audiences. Last past week I had the opportunity to see “Immortal Beauty: Highlights from the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection” at Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA). This is the first time that any of Drexel’s extensive fashion collection has been exhibited – and judging from the crowded gallery, interest in it abounds. Besides students with sketch pads, other attendees were intrigued with the history of “famous” ownership of many of the items (including Babe Paley, Mrs. Walter Annenberg, Princess Grace of Monaco – to name just a few), some were there as students of fashion history, others had just a casual interest in clothing and fashion, and then there were those like me, who look at everything through the eyes of a dressmaker.

Although the Exhibit spans a period of three centuries, the majority of the items on display are mid-nineteenth century, and include not only dresses, but also shoes, handbags, hats and other accessories. I will share some of my favorite selections, some of which are inspiring to me for a number of reasons. Although I was allowed to take photos, “flashes” were not permitted, so the quality of my pictures is somewhat compromised.

The fabric in this Elsa Schiaparelli gown, from her Zodiac Collection, 1938-1939, positively shimmers. This gown, cut on the bias, is a wrapped design, with a wide sash tied on one side.

Drexel - Schaparelli dress

One of my favorite items in the exhibit is a wool suit by Gilbert Adrian, an American, circa 1947. The “slashed” detailing as shown in my photo still has me scratching my head, trying to figure out how this was achieved so successfully.

Drexel - black and white suit

I guess no fashion exhibit with highlights from the twentieth century is complete without a Charles James gown. Dating from 1948, this gown, a gift from Mrs. William S. (Babe) Paley, is absolutely serene.

Drexel - Charles James gown

The gown that struck me as the most amazing feat of construction is a coral-embroidered dress owned by Princess Grace of Monaco and given by Her Serene Highness to the collection at Drexel. Dating to 1964, the dress, which was designed by Hubert Givenchy, was executed by Marie Therese of Nice, who must have been a remarkable dressmaker!

A detail of the bodice of this gown is featured on the cover of the Exhibit catalogue, shown further down in this post.

A detail of the bodice of this gown is featured on the cover of the Exhibit catalogue, shown further down in this post.

This Exhibit does not disappoint when it comes to a classic Chanel suit. Having made two Chanel-type jackets myself, one under the tutelage of Susan Khalje and one on my own, I am always excited to see pocket and trim details on a “real” Chanel. These are the techniques which we, as dressmakers, can mimic.

Drexel - Chanel suit 1

Drexel - Cahnel suit 2

Having just finished a 1960s’ Madame Gres-designed coat, using a Vogue Designer pattern, I was excited to see this Madame Gres coat from the early 1970s. I am a fan of her unusual seaming and reserved elegance.

Drexel - Madame Gres coat

Nowhere is elegance more in focus than with this quintessential gown, also by Madame Gres, circa 1980. From across the gallery, this gown was recognizable as a Gres design, with its petite soft pleats and Classically-inspired demeanor.

Drexel - Madame Gres gown - 2

Drexel - Madame Gres gown

Heralding from the 1990s is this Carolina Herrera sequined jacket, a gift from the designer to the collection. Deep yellow and black are not colors one usually associates with “evening wear;” enhanced with pave sequins, these colors make this a striking ensemble.

Drexel - Carolina Herrara jacket

I can’t leave my short synopsis of this exhibit without showing one of the beautiful pairs of shoes on display. Evening shoes by Ferragamo – what a delight to see these beauties!

Drexel - Ferragamo shoes

The curator of the Exhibit is Clare Sauro. She is also co-author of the catalogue accompanying the Exhibit, entitled: Immortal Beauty.

Drexel - Catalog

The final display in the Exhibit is an ethereal ball gown by Chado Ralph Rucci. Dating to just 2006, it is remarkable for its complex fabric and simplicity of form. Unable to do any justice to it with a photograph, I refer to the catalogue for excellent views of it and other of the beautiful fashions on display, too many to detail here.


Filed under Fashion Exhibits, Uncategorized

10 responses to “A Notable Exhibit of Twentieth Century Fashion

  1. marilou

    Very inspiring and beautiful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and pictures. I hope I can see the exhibit.

  2. Those beautiful garments are indeed inspiring. Thanks for sharing them, and your blog. I read the whole thing this past week, wonderful writing and some great sewing. Thanks!

  3. heather

    oh, my! how wonderful! thank you for sharing- wish i could go. i was just reading about Adrian. so great to see one of his suits. (also followed the link to your Gres coat- so awesome! greatly appreciate your insights… 🙂

  4. Thank you Thank you Thank you!

  5. Beautiful, classic styles. Looks like a wonderful exhibit.

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